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Watford 7 Blackpool 2 (24/01/2015) 25/01/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Superlatives are easy to wave around.  In trying to convey drama, even if you’re not trying to “sell” anything, no vested interest in pumping up a mega hyper Super Duper Sunday (or whatever) the temptation to exaggerate can be overwhelming.  “No, really, it was SO incredible”.  But there’s no overstating this.  On a day of extraordinary results this one didn’t get a mention on 5 Live in the forty-odd minutes it took us to crawl from the Girls Grammar to the Cassiobury estate, under the radar…  and yet few in the stadium will have seen anything like it.

The game started, what feels like eons ago, in much the same fashion as last week’s equally emphatic and yet ultimately more routine and vastly less interesting win over Charlton Athletic; a bright and punchy opening with the critical distinction that whilst we prodded Addicks and they fell open like a chocolate orange,  this time the visitors got the break. A shambles down our right with Paredes – who, like the otherwise impeccable Miguel Layún, occasionally seemed surprised at being closed down  – and Gomes getting into a horrible mess and presenting Orlandi with a straightforward opportunity to put the Seasiders ahead.  A calamity on several levels – not least because it gave our visitors something tangible to hold on to.  They looked limited but disciplined, and we’d acquiesced meekly to their gameplan that would involve standing up to our forwards, keeping their shape and grabbing what they could grab.  We weren’t awful in this period… we had lots of possession and made a few chances, not least when the ever-positive Ighalo found himself in space after his marker lost the ball and punched a shot that Parish clawed out of the top corner.  But we didn’t look terribly like scoring either, light in midfield, too many players looking unconvincing and unconvinced on the fringes of the action.  It was hugely reminiscent of the dying embers of Gianfranco Zola’s reign, when any team with a scout, or a brain, figured out that they could roll up, keep their shape and wait for us to screw up whilst breaking ourselves on their banks of four.  This Blackpool did competently and grabbed a second through the unpleasant Davies, his third goal on visits to Vicarage Road in recent seasons.  Exasperating, but a very real challenge for Slav and the team and therefore interesting.  How much have we learned?  Are we smart enough to counter this yet?

2- Half time was disgruntled, as you might expect.  A pigeon high in the roof of the Rookery summed up the mood by crapping on Felix’s shoulder, perhaps in response to his suggestion that the visitors would crumble as soon as we scored and that it was merely a question of how quickly we would make the breakthrough.  I was with the pigeon; I didn’t see that coming at all. Blackpool weren’t Charlton, a limited side who’d been punching above their weight, gotten unrealistic expectations and were now suffering from the twin challenges of gravity and momentum.  The Seasiders had been bouncing along the bottom all season, there’s no further down to go.  Lee Clark’s side had some shape and some grit, and much as they hadn’t won an away game they’d been scraping together points and had enough about them to make a gift-wrapped two-goal lead away at a side with pretensions something that could be defended by bloody-mindedness, bodies on the line to protect what they had.  Even if they shipped a goal they’d still have a lead.  Even if they shipped two a point would have been a decent result.  I expected us to have to scrap for every inch, I expected it to be frustrating, I wasn’t convinced we were up to it.

3- Boy was I wrong.  We struck back almost immediately, and then hit the visitors like a tidal wave.  They were complicit in their own downfall, lumbering punch drunk after the ball as the scoreline rattled away from them and very much not closing the game up, but take nothing away from the Hornets either on or off the pitch, this was something special.  Slav made a crucial tactical change in bringing off Hoban for debutant Watson, of whom more below…  suddenly we had an extra body in midfield with Vydra, who had looked uncomfortable and constrained in the Abdi position at the front of the midfield, now with more freedom.  Whether, had things not developed as they did, Blackpool would have put more pressure on our full backs we don’t know… but as it was their limited attacking threat in the face of the blistering whirlwind of yellow shirts meant that Paredes and Anya were able to attack as much as they had in the first half without glancing over their shoulders.  As for the goals…  the extraordinary deluge, the concentration of strikes that saw us turn the game around in less than 10 minutes and hit seven in a breathtaking 34 were less individual incidents worthy of distinct dissection than artifacts, bi-products of the performance itself.  Odion Ighalo grabbed four through disciplined forward play, being in the right place, making the run, being positive.  Vydra scored perhaps the best and most vital of the bunch and his play flowered with confidence immediately, linking up dynamically with Anya down the left and then playing in the wickedly delicate ball that made Ighalo’s hat-trick goal.  It could have been more, and the final scoreline once again didn’t flatter us.  All that prevented more goals as the Seasiders continued to leave us wide open spaces was that our feverish running had simply left us without legs.

4- A word for Nyron Nosworthy, so recently of this parish, and Craig Cathcart who have effectively traded places since last season… and one can only conclude that both sides have benefitted from the exchange.  In the first half Nyron was solid, leaving his former teammate Troy Deeney a peripheral figure;  in the second he was blown away with the rest of the debris into which the visitors disintegrated.  And yet the Seasiders, in their current state, will probably find his experience, physique and force of personality of greater immediate value than Craig Cathcart’s more elegant form of defending.  Whereas… it’s difficult to imagine Nyron, for all his qualities, being comfortable with bringing the ball out in the way that all three of our centre-backs were needing and able to do at different stages.  The concern with Cathcart will remain his horribly brittle-sounding injury record, but every on-pitch contribution has been positive.

5- Sitting sixth in the League it’s inappropriate to use the term “turning the corner” whether or not this match has any lasting significance.  And yet one can’t help but feel that this was hugely important in so many ways… the sort of position that we found ourselves in at half time is one that we’ve struggled lamentably to pull ourselves away from  in the past and yet today it looked effortless, even if one forgets about the dramatic margin of victory for the moment.  The scoreline, the second half performance were extraordinary… but coming from two down in such circumstances is worth celebrating on its own.  In looking forward to the closing months of the season one can only be encouraged by the latest addition to the ranks; Ben Watson is hardly a stranger, a frequent opponent over the years and yet in the second half it was encouraging how much part of the machine he looked.  A continuity player, not someone who will do the spectacular things but he’ll combine the Jonathan Hogg trick of always being there to receive a pass with a miserliness with possession.  A real asset, and a good option.  And over time, as the Pozzo squad accumulates, you have to reflect that Hogg himself, and then only arguably, is one of very few to have got away.  We’ve seen a huge turnover of players and yet we’ve retained the cream which has seen us build an extraordinary squad, perhaps unparalleled in the club’s history.  Today suggested that as well as the quality we have the personality and the tactical wit to mount a promotion bid that will be very much more than theoretical.  What comes next, starting with Friday’s trip to Bournemouth, will be fascinating.


Watford 5 Charlton Athletic 0 (17/01/2015) 18/01/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Today was a good day.  The sun shone, a beautiful crisp winter’s day which saw early gentle snowfalls melt away, no wind, no bite, a day to grin at the aggressively blue sky.  Vicarage Road looked fabulous in front of its biggest crowd for nearly seven years in – count them – four stands.  “Your Song” rumbled around Vicarage Road before kick-off and, whilst Charlton started quite brightly and the early exchanges suggested a punchy end-to-end encounter it didn’t take long for the game’s pattern to establish itself.  Troy Deeney played a wicked through-ball to release Anya, the Addicks’ defence fell apart like a house of cards, Chris Solly took a yellow by snatching at the escaping wing-back and that was pretty much that.  Our worst performances tend to have been followed directly by defiance like this since Slav’s arrival and Charlton were the fall guys.  This was the bit of being “inconsistent” that is to be enjoyed.  There are worse things than being inconsistent after all…

2- And Charlton were shocking, as it turned out.  Maybe this one just fell helpfully for us, our opponents at a particularly low ebb but not since Blackpool’s visit last March have we faced opposition so lamentably flimsy and short of confidence.  Early encounters had suggested that there was a threat, but that suggestion crumbled away very quickly; Tal Ben Haim and Andre Bikey are experienced defenders and neither played particularly badly but this was a horribly immobile pairing to put in a high line behind a midfield who never got close enough to their opposite numbers.  The Addicks were exposed defensively over and over again by movement in behind, and when they were back and set we had obviously identified a weakness in the air from set pieces as the ball was invariably played quickly wide for Paredes, Layún, Tözsér or Anya to send a cross in.  This route gave us the opening goal, Cathcart eventualy capitalising from Layún’s right-wing delivery.  Within ten minutes it was two, a ball over the top allowing Deeney to get a run on goal and score a second;  a personal disaster for Bikey this… if you’re a big centre-back you ought to back yourself to make your muscle count in a one-to-one that doesn’t test your pace.  The destructive job is much easier, requires much less precision than the attacking one in that situation but Deeney prevailed to go into double figures for the campaign and become the first player since John Barnes to reach double figures for us for four consecutive seasons.  Any remaining fight went out of Charlton at that point; the second half was a farce, Watford at half-pace for much of it with the gravest concern that the Addicks’ bewildered, haunted inadequacy would spill over into petulant tackles.  It never happened.

3- Dispatches from Huddersfield suggested an underwhelming debut from our new Mexican, albeit with the proviso that judging a player based on a single game and a team non-performance at that was perhaps unreasonable.  Hugely impressive in a nominally central role, Layún spent much time on the right and Paredes seemed to flourish outside him albeit against a side without much of a threat to watch over his shoulder.  Layún displayed a great touch, movement and distribution and simply looked like a fabulous footballer, a beautiful new artery for our football to flow through.  A mention too for George Byers’ popular cameo; the young midfielder was greeted onto the pitch by a strong “welcome to the grown-ups’ game” challenge , to which he responded by booting the miscreant up the arse at the earliest opportunity.  No delicate flower, this one.  Otherwise, in what became a swaggering Watford performance two individuals stood out. Odion Ighalo’s movement and hold-up play are just fabulous; combined with impudence, resilience and personality the Nigerian is becoming a cult hero at Vicarage Road as he was, by all accounts, at Granada.  Alex Geijo and Mathias Ranégie have both struggled, in different ways, to make an impression as nominally the “fourth man” in Watford’s forward armoury.  Ighalo is no longer the fourth anything.  And then there was Daniel Tözsér.  His corner provided Ighalo with his second early in the half, his marvellous party piece gave the scoreline an entirely unflattering flourish in the closing minutes, but beyond that he turned and spun and coaxed and stroked the game to his will.  Often singled out as our pivotal player by savvier opponents his contribution has been limited as a consequence.  Today Charlton gave his the freedom of Vicarage Road and he ripped them to pieces.

4- As I get older I understand the trajectory of football chants less and less. Any number of anthemic and/or witty chants have bitten the dust, for instance, over the period during which the utterly witless “we’re the riiiight side…. We’re the leeeeft side….” stupidity has prevailed.  Today, two aspects of note.  A Mexican wave rumbled around in the second half which may have been concocted in Layún’s honour, or in recognition of our stadium’s new completeness (and of which the visiting supporters were much more accommodating than anyone had any right to expect in the circumstances) but which incidentally reflected the relative non-event of the second half. Secondly, the half-hearted response to Addicks’ keeper Neil Etheridge’s early nervousness was thoroughly underwhelming.  There was a time when such behaviour would have been seized upon mercilessly, but the reaction of the Rookery was tame and Etheridge recovered his composure to keep the score down with a number of fine stops including an impossible save low to his left from a fierce Ighalo drive that might otherwise have seen the Nigerian claim the match ball.  A number of long-term Rookerites have recently decamped to the East Stand, at least one of whom citing in justification that he feels he is too old to be sitting behind the goal.  You know who you are.  This sort of lily-livered behaviour is doing us no favours.

5- This is becoming a traditional line with thunk 5, but nonetheless…  it has to be noted that whilst this afternoon was thoroughly satisfactory in every respect, it was nothing new.  We know that we can turn teams over that are ill-prepared or ill-equipped enough to allow us to play.  One hopes that 5-0 victories will never become passé…  but this was a Ferris Bueller’s Day Out kinda win.  Yes, great, yes, jolly good fun.  But we’ve seen it before, many times. We’ d much rather be stuffing teams like this than not and there’s no sense in taking such things for granted… but our promotion campaign becomes forceful rather than speculative when we start beating teams that make it difficult rather more often.  A few more Readings, in fairness, and a few less Huddersfields. Slav has taken remedial action by sidelining disruptive and unwanted members of the squad…  we can’t judge the appropriateness of individual decisions, but something has clearly been wrong with attitudes, so all power to him for doing something.  The mooted signing of Jay Spearing would be just what the doctor ordered… a bit of welly in an area of the pitch where we’re suddenly shorter of options thanks to injury, Munari joining Abdi and Murray on the injury list.  So… positive steps.  But the fact is that our performances have been inconsistent but not unpredictable.  Until we start taking on all comers in this fashion, wins like today will only count for so much.

Chelsea 3 Watford 0 (04/01/2015) 05/01/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Living, as I do, on the edge of a field some way from London it’s not often that I’m down in the capital and there’s a part of me that’s still coming to terms with the realisation that the city is a continuous entity, not a collection of unconnected bubbles centered on tube stations.  IMG_0756This consideration was a factor in the decision to build up to the game by walking the five and a half miles along the river from a particularly misty Blackfriars to Stamford Bridge… that, and the suspicion that things could turn sour horribly quickly once the actual football got started.  The memory of forking out an ill-rewarded £50 for a ticket for this tie five years ago  was (still) too fresh in the memory to do anything other than anticipate and savour the remote possibility of us overturning the odds.  One in a (very big number) shots do come off sometimes… but I think a straw poll before the game would have quickly come up with “making a decent fist of it and not having our league form disrupted by a dicking”, or words to that effect, as something to settle for.

2- Which I think we did, by any reasonable assessment.  Certainly the first half can be considered a triumph, I don’t think that’s overstating it. Yes, Chelsea had rested the biggest of their big guns but the faint praise implied by a reflection that we only had to overcome a weakened side rather glosses over the fact that (the excellent) Felipe Luis has a Champions (sic) League winners’ medal, that André Schürrle put in the devastating cross for the goal that won the World Cup final in July, that Didier Drogba may be past his best but, actually, was never terribly quick anyway and still has the strength, the nous, the touch and the personality.  From a Watfordcentric point of view what makes the achievement of all but nullifying their first half threat (Bond making one non-trivial stop, a superb reaction save from a near post Drogba header just in front of us) is that this destructiveness is a skill that we’re so very unpracticed at.  I’ve seen comments suggesting, in the wake of the performance that folk “begin to understand how Jokanovic wants us to play” but whilst certainly, as at Cardiff, he got it tactically spot on this was a gameplan that we’ve never seen or needed to use before. Normally it’s us with the ball and the challenge is how to make it count.  We were diligent and disciplined in a way that we’ve rarely been or had to be defensively;  certainly all of the back three, including the excellent Hoban, were outstanding.

3- Here’s the least insightful thunk of the season.  Chelsea, ultimately, had a bit too much quality for us.  There’s some credit to be taken from the fact that it took a stunning finish from Willian to break the deadlock.  The second owed a little to luck, perhaps, a deflection falling kindly for Rémy (albeit that the ref would rather harshly have awarded a spot kick in any case).  Only with the third, with the side rattled, did we really let ourselves down.  We’re not as good as Chelsea, then.  Hardly breaking news… but as a footnote, worth reflecting that while the inclusion of Doherty and Smith on the bench (the latter for the first time in twelve months) is positive opportunity for youth products, it was also suddenly borne of necessity.  We didn’t have anyone else available.


4- Another thunk that merely reflects a common perception post-match rather than adding to it…  but a hugely frustrating game for Fernando Forestieri.  He was particularly well-suited in this fixture to the ratting and ferreting job that Wayne Andrews was briefly so good at… burrowing under the pitch and emerging unheralded under the feet of his surprised opponent to scurry off with the ball leaving his blue-shirted adversary on his backside, Fessi won us as much possession as anyone.  His quick feet were frequently an outlet too, he and Ighalo attacking wide space to provide support to Deeney as our 5-4-1 broke into a 3-4-3…  and yet…  too often let down by appalling decision making, holding onto the ball for just too long.  Fessi has the mischief and the magic dust to unlock tight defences but here, attacking on the break, we really didn’t want to be giving high calibre opposition time to get set by just one more turn back inside in preference to a ball across the box, albeit with a fair chance of missing its target.  Love him to bits, but this aspect of his game needs sorting.

5- In conclusion, then, no worse than par and nothing that should capsize our recent League form.  3-0 doesn’t give enough credit to our display, but at the same time it would be wrong to suggest that Chelsea weren’t worth the margin of victory…  the credit we take is that we made them play that well, made them show their hand.  The ghost of our most recent top flight seasons, particularly 1999/00 where so often strong performances were undone by a lack of quality, is difficult to ignore… but this was a high benchmark to challenge ourselves against and plenty, Slav not least, came out comfortably in credit.  Not unreasonable to argue that, given the potential psychological impact of a humiliation, we navigated this one successfully despite the result.  On to Huddersfield on the front foot…

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